Smart Kids + OLPC = Better World

The state of Illinois has a publicly funded boarding high school for exceptional students called the Illinois Math and Science Academy. I’m the kind of person that would have benefited greatly from a special advanced curriculum and the resources this school has – I was in the International Baccalaureate program and I still found it pretty easy. So I’ve kept one eyeball on IMSA, curious to find out more about it. So far, the most compelling fact I’ve found was in a comparison of Chicagoland high schools. The best high schools act (including the admissions-based magnet high schools in Chicago) had median ACT scores of 26 or 27. IMSA had a median ACT score of 32! For reference, a 36 is a perfect score and a 32 puts you in the 98th percentile.

I got my opportunity to find out more and meet some of the kids at a the first meeting of the OLPC Chicago Interest Group, hosted at Google’s Chicago office. Most of the meeting was IMSA students presenting projects that they were working on. Here are some of the projects they mentioned:

  • An EKG probe, including building a general purpose signal amplifier that could be used for other probes. This included learning electrical engineering, breadboarding, and how to solder (hand burns and all!). These students expressed interest in getting their design manufactured in a more robust and inexpensive package that could be added on to OLPC orders. This would turn the XO into a tool for health management in addition to education.
  • An acoustic tape measure program that measures sound pulses to determine the distance between two laptops. This program is already included on the Give One, Get One laptops.
  • A clock program that will show multiple interpretations of the time, starting with digital, analog, and the position of the sun or moon in the sky. These two students are learning PyGtk for the graphics and doing this in their spare time, in addition to writing a general CAPTCHA solver for a semester project.
  • A Rosetta Stone-like language acquisition program. This is in the planning stage but the intention is for it to be as much as possible in the target language so that once the software is developed, it can be easily ported to other languages. I’ve offered to help in the design and coding of this software.
  • In addition to the hardware and software projects, other students were helping plan teaching and demonstration events at area schools and organizing a bulk purchase of laptops in the Chicago area.

Did I mention that these are high school kids?!? My summary doesn’t begin to convey the confidence, enthusiasm, and intelligence that these kids radiated. Just a little background on IMSA and the OLPC project: IMSA was the first (and looks like still only) high school chapter of the University program to create communities of interest around the OLPC. The other schools (9 total) include some lofty company, like Olin College, Northwestern, and Duke. The students are in touch with some of the main contributors to the project, and their project have attracted attention and support from industry experts working who are also contributing to the OLPC ecosystem.

The students I met tonight were exceptional in many ways. They’re worth keeping an eye on, and fortunately, they’re documenting their progress on their chapter wiki. For anyone who expects great things to come out of the students at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, you don’t need to wait long.

P.S. Google puts on a nice spread! If you ever have the chance to eat their food, take it!

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